Outside of the mass market Will Smith movie out of the 2000s that bore the same title, i, ROBOT was originally a book published far before the age of mass computing, in 1950, and is a fascinating example of so called “hard” science fiction, meaning that the technology contained therein must obey the laws of science.
Isaac Asimov himself was born in the USSR. He immigrated young as a Yiddish speaker, and grew up to become a biochemistry professor and a Mensa member. He acquired his characteristic large framed glasses, and soon discovered he could earn more by writing fiction and then non-fiction, and thus a writer was born. He held complex and liberal political views during his life, and was vocal about the Vietnam War, and Nixon, leading to him being investigated by the FBI as a possible Soviet spy. After suffering a heart attack and then heart surgery, he contracted HIV during a blood transfusion, later passing away due to AIDS.
While the film i, ROBOT follows a detective in a mostly linear story, the original book is actually a collection of distantly connected short stories, each of which form a self-contained logical puzzle about the peculiar behavior of the robots within. Some of the characters from the book appear in the movie, and the laws of robotics are the same, but the story itself bears no resemblance. While the movie is very Hollywood, the book is more like a study guide for the LSAT logic section, and more than once I had to reread the end of a chapter to fully understand how a character had deducted their solution.
While not usually a fan of short stories because of the limited space available to develop characters and setting, this book links pieces of the stories together across space and time in unexpected ways. The depth of the logic games and the realism, other than how absurd the phrase “positronic brain” sounds in 2021 (maybe still to early), make this an immersive if not slightly challenging read for commutes. It is never tedious, though sometimes mildly frustrating, and the world, its rules, and the people and robots that populate it are fascinating, though one occasionally wishes they could linger a little longer.
The book is conscious of science, of history, and even of race, showing remarkable depth for a series of stories written between 1941 and 1950. Nonetheless, putting New York as the capital of the world would appear shocking had he lived long enough to see what it had become under Donald Trump, Guiliani, and then COVID.
The stories themselves were a pleasure, but the finale was thought provoking. Written more than seventy years ago, the culture even then could clearly predict the predicament we face now with increasing dependence on technology, as artificial intelligence and machine learning run our lives. The questions it raises about why we do what we do ought to make us think about how, as we quantify the world, we devalue the abstract elements of humanity, and of life itself. Not every value can be computed as there are naturally intangible elements to our world, and Asimov intricately understood this. It is worth remembering such truths, and focusing on the people and world around us instead of becoming increasingly trustful of technology to the detriment of our lives themselves.
He deeply valued free speech, and more importantly free thought, as the manifestation of humanity, and this is implied in the last pages, although the tension between our power to drive technology and the inevitability of our loss of free will are left unresolved.
A self described “humanist,” it is fascinating that a group of such people appear in the book expressing their opposition to overreliance on robotics out of the lack of fairness and humanity. Technology is just a tool that can be infinitely useful and improve the world tremendously. It has the potential to even become more than that, but only if it adopts elements of what makes us human, our capacity for abstraction, irrational feeling, and some other indescribable element that makes us unique.
The opposite is also true, and thus, if we continue to become more like machines, commoditized, saturated in the unreal, and basal utilitarians focused on quantitative outputs rather than a less tangible but more important “good,” then perhaps we are not actually saving ourselves, but giving ourselves up to them.
Rating: a nearly filled electron shell
Staff writer: Ari B